Robert Burns guest column political science democracy SDSU



I had the honor of teaching political science at South Dakota State University for 38 years. I admit that during these years I have made a commitment to indoctrinate our students, not with a leftist ideology or an intention to sow division, but with the aim of advancing the principles of representative democracy and the accompanying need to proactively understand and defend these principles. way when the erosion of these principles occurs as a result of citizen negligence or deliberate ploys of citizens.

I did this because I tend to believe that no other system of governance offers humanity a better opportunity for human “life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness”.

While democracy theorists might quibble a bit about the essentials of an ideal representative democracy, there is a general consensus that all of the following are essential to a true representative democracy:

  1. Respect for the rule of law, which includes the fair and equitable administration of justice and does not exempt anyone from the application of the law.
  2. Adherence to the principle of simple majority rule against minority or elitist rule.
  3. Periodic free elections to hold decision-makers accountable to the people accompanied by a peaceful transfer of power.
  4. Political equality where all adult citizens enjoy an equal right to vote and that this vote is counted and an equal right to seek and hold public office.
  5. And freedom of expression where people have the right to criticize those who govern and to express their personal secular and religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.

Unsurprisingly, these essential elements of democracy did not suddenly appear with the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the development of the US Constitution. The elements have evolved over time as a result of difficult and sometimes violent struggles.

Typically, each new generation of Americans has benefited from an improved but still imperfect form of democracy, albeit a form of ebb and flow of progress. Sadly, now is a time of retreat rather than progress as we see a severe erosion of these essential elements of democracy due to the apathy and neglect of our citizens and the very deliberate ploys of citizens. secularists and officials to quash representative democracy in the United States.

Each of the five essential elements of representative democracy is today under threat. Uneven and damaging application of the law and the effort of senior officials to assert themselves above the law; the insistence on super versus simple majorities in the making of ordinary laws at the state and national level; violent and prolonged resistance to fair electoral results; initiatives to suppress low-income and minority voters in more than 40 states and new initiatives of punitive political protest in 20 states, coupled with official calls for strict adherence to past orthodoxy in history teaching and civic education in the United States are all cause for alarm.

Democracy in the United States is under attack by authoritarian-minded internal individuals and groups who apparently believe that they can better achieve their “life, freedom and pursuit of happiness” in an autocratic illiberal populist state as opposed to our representative democratic state. We can sit idly by and let it happen, or we can actively and vehemently insist that our leaders honor the democracy advocates who have evolved in our country since the sovereignty of the United States was acquired.

Government officials who fail to honor our essential elements of democracy through their actions or cowardly silence must be held politically accountable for their failure to defend our system of governance.

Our democracy invites and can handle disagreements, including acute disagreements on a wide range of important issues, but “We the people” must not tolerate those who seek to destroy our system of representative democratic governance, whether they be foreign or national origin.

Robert Burns of Brookings taught political science at South Dakota State University for 38 years and is now professor emeritus of political science.

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